Physical activity vs. PE: What’s the difference?



Physical activity and physical education are two terms that are often mistakenly used interchangeably. While there are inherent similarities and overlapping, there’s one point that needs to be made clear—physical education and physical activity are not synonymous.

Physical ActivityFor example, say there are two children. Both get adequate physical activity—playing at recess, at home, and on the weekends. Only one of them has been fortunate enough to receive physical education throughout elementary, middle, and high school. Fast forward to the future. Chances are that the child who took PE is the one who has brought health into their adulthood.

Physical Activity

Recess is fantastic. It’s a time for kids to run around and around with only their imaginations, a few swings and a basketball hoop. It’s what makes being a kid so great. This kind of fun counts for physical activity, not education.

When kids are at home and head out to play freeze tag or red light green light, or when they head to dance practice, or when they chase lightning bugs around the yard, it also accounts for physical activity. It’s important. It releases endorphins, builds muscle and bone density, and improves coordination.

But physical activity does not complete the picture of good health for our children. Physical education contains physical activity, but it also contains a lot of other things that set up children for long-term health of the body, mind, and spirit.

Physical Education

According to the 2010 Shape of the Nation report conducted by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) and the American Heart Association, “Physical education is based on a sequence of learning … [which] also includes health, nutrition, social responsibility, and the value of fitness throughout one’s life.”

Unfortunately, the past few years have been unkind to those gym and health classes (collectively, PE) that were cut as a result of schools “teaching to the test.” Math, science, and reading took precedent over PE time, which doesn’t quite fit in to decreased budgets.

The Shape of the Nation report continues: “Providing time for unstructured physical activity is not the same as providing instructional time for meeting the goals of quality physical education.”

Besides, as students grow and head into high school, the “unstructured physical activity” they get during free periods might consist of walking to the nearest convenience store or idly wandering about the hallways.

This just won’t do, especially as students are studying for tests that will decide where they head next, be it vocational school, college or into the workforce or military.

It won’t do in younger students either, when they’re learning material that gives them basic skills and knowledge everyone should know: simple math, critical reading and spelling, and the science of our world.

Why? Physical education provides physical activity, which studies show helps to improve academic performance. Physical education also provides knowledge—the knowledge every human being needs to stay healthy throughout their lifetime.

So what is physical education exactly?

The education aspect comes into play when teachers combine motion with minds. For example, middle school challenges can involve running to different locations to put together a puzzle, or to seek out objects on a map. Also, education can focus on specific skills and coordination, like how to throw a flying disc or use a hockey stick. High schools will learn the value of nutrition and pair that will circuit training. They’ll learn how to set goals and how to stay active in achieving those goals.

Research is the basis for each of these strategies. These examples and others are proven to work, not only to improve the health knowledge of students, but to improve their ability to comprehend other subjects as well.

The American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) is an association dedicated to the health and well-being of America’s youth. The Alliance’s members (NASPE, for one) are a wealth of information about the importance of physical education, the research behind the information, and why it’s important in the first place.

It’s this heralded research that SPARK is based upon.

SPARK aligns itself with the standards set by NASPE, author of the Shape of the Nation report. SPARK takes those standards and adds the processes that make the standards attainable.

Renowned institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Academy of Sciences as well a plethora of science and teaching journals have cited SPARK’s physical education curriculum, and the HSC Foundation has even named SPARK as the only program it recommends for both PE and physical activity.

And that’s what this is all about. SPARK has the difference between physical education and physical activity down to a science—literally.

School districts with struggling attendance, lagging productivity and underwhelming test scores must look at the research. Recess is not enough.

Many of these schools are under federal and state government mandates to perform well in math, science and reading. If they don’t, teachers could see pink slips and students could be subjected to a longer school day or year.

However, the government also provides help.

The Department of Health and Human Services is an excellent source of funding for a school to institute a physical education program that is proven to be effective in raising academic performance.

More educated movement, better test scores.

And it’s not just the test scores that will improve. The health and well-being of the students, their abilities, their outlook, their potential — all of it will improve.

Aren’t our children worth it?

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  • sathya

    Well education is not only means the studies but also about the physical activities. This is also considered as education. This is what they exactly provided here.

  • mjmache

    I agree with the point of this article.  The fact is that there is a huge difference between recess/physical activity/ free play and Physical Education.  Physical Education is an academic course that strives to achieve competence in cognitive, psychomotor, and affective areas of physical activity.  The fact that many times people get the two confused shows the difference between what P.E. used to be and what we strive to make it be today.  In years past, "Gym Class" would a lot of the times be considered "free play."  Today's P.E. classes are mostly much more advanced and productive than this.  And yes, it has been proven that the presence of P.E. class in a school curriculum will improve academic performance in other areas.  I believe it would be a crime to consider any type of recess or free play an acceptable substitute for a Physical Education class.  I'm not saying that free play is a bad thing.  It's an important part of having fun and being a kid.  But a quality P.E. class will provide kids with quality instruction on how to perform various amounts of physical tasks.  Perhaps from these quality P.E. classes they can find a physical activity they really like to do.  This would encourage them to participate in this particular activity they really enjoy to continue beyond their schools years.  In free play or recess, the child will only perform tasks in which he/she is already familiar with, since it is up to him/her.  Physical Education class provides a lot more opportunity for learning and more opportunity to learn various skills that you simply cannot replace with recess and free play. 

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